Hannah Goes Fishing

A Fishing (and more) Blog


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I’m a Stranger Here Myself

For the third time in my life, I am an immigrant. As third times tend to go, this one has been a charm.

When Rob and I moved to Norway, we official took up immigrant status as we looked for housing, employment, and opened bank accounts. We are not native to this land and we join some other 815,000 other people (or about 15.6% of the population) who are immigrants like us.  But, we are actually not like most of those other people because we are what I will call “welcomed immigrants”. Norway wants us to be here; in fact, they’ve invited us via my contract as a PhD student and are willing to pay us a previously unfathomable sum of money for me to study here.  Rob has easily found work (which is not very common, but was very lucky for us), and we have faced essentially zero harassment, discrimination, or other such challenges related to our non-national status. This is a tricky subject, because as we are here on the good grace’s of Norway’s government I am hesitant to write critically of our host country. But, what I really want to talk about isn’t necessarily a criticism of Norway or her people, but rather an insight into what it’s like to immigrate to a country that is not your own, and just how incredibly difficult that process is.

America has been talking a lot about immigration in our pre-pre-election coverage.  Coming from a nation that is literally, in every sense of the word, based and founded upon immigrants, I am shocked by the anti-immigrant rhetoric I see so often in our national media. In particular, I’m shocked by the expectations people place on immigrants to assimilate and become part of American culture, especially since America is such a melting pot of culture. Indeed, we have prided ourselves on that very aspect of American life for generations.  Did you know that about 13% of our population is made up of recent immigrants? If you add in children born to first generation immigrants, that number jumps to 25%.  One-quarter of Americans have a close relationship to life and culture outside of America.  That’s a big deal, but does it necessarily mean it’s a bad deal? I’m inclined to say it does not. I think the root issue of what people are truly concerned about has much more to do with how we perceive immigrants to be as people, as cultures, and as the dark and mysterious “other” that we’ve taken essentially no time to understand. I think we are afraid of change.

As an American here in Norway, we are considered  “good immigrants”. Rob and I were invited to live here, we have jobs, we pay taxes, we contribute productively to Norwegian society. We are indescribably fortunate to be native English speakers living in a country where nearly everyone speaks fluent English as a second language (further demonstrating that speaking more than one language does not, in fact, cause a mass downfall of societal mores). We are lucky to ‘look’ Norwegian. We are from a country that has good diplomatic relations with Norway. We are not, however, perfect.  Or even really that great.

After a month of living here, we know that we are unlikely to achieve any sort of fluency in Norwegian. We had great intentions to try when we arrived, but we didn’t count on the fact that it’s really tough to find resources to learn a new language, even in a system as generous as Norway’s.  Norwegian classes for us are either A) expensive, B) poorly timed (like in the middle of the workday), or C) very, very difficult to get into (the local university refuses to allow me to enroll in a class until I am a degree seeking student at their institution, which just isn’t feasible seeing as I’m already a PhD student at a different institution). We are fortunate to be pulling in two different sources of income, yet we find it tough to afford the monthly fees for a Norwegian class.  In short, we are not very good immigrants, and are largely riding off of qualities we are lucky to have but have done nothing to earn.

And that’s something I had never really thought about before I moved here: how hard it is to immigrate. I had never considered what it would be like to try to learn English as a non-English speaking immigrant to America. While I’m not from a town that sees a lot of foreign immigrants moving in, I’m not sure I know of any place that offers regular English classes for beginners.  Here in Norway, we are functionally illiterate and only get by because we happen to speak the next best language for Norway. For people from other parts of world moving here (or to America), they are SOL at the grocery store. Is this flour? What kind of flour? Why are there five kinds of something that looks like flour? Is this good for making cookies? I don’t know! Let’s just throw it in the cart and hope for the best!  Don’t speak English or Norwegian? Have a great time figuring out the government websites that tell you where to get your national ID card, where to register your address, and how to pay taxes. Being a foreigner is really tough for the first few months, and it’s even tougher when you have no second language to fall back on, no cultural reference for how this new society functions, and no one to help you through all the legal steps to stay in a country legally. I have no idea how the immigration system works in America, but I can’t imagine it’s simple, easy, or expedient.

Now, before you get the wrong idea, we’ve had a really wonderful experience immigrating to Norway. People have been nothing but helpful, we’ve had ‘sponsors’ to guide us along the way, smart phones to navigate the streets, and English to fall back on when all else failed. We’re also white. We’re married. We’re not of any discernible religion that has negative connotations in the Western world. We have, quite literally, nearly every possible social construct of a “good immigrant” working in our favor, and Norwegians are willing to look past our ‘bad immigrant’ qualities. And still, it has been challenging making our finances stretch until all the proper paperwork was in place to cash a paycheck and pay our electric bill.

I tell you all of this because last week I made a friend of sorts. Her name is Bano, and when she was eight years old she immigrated to Norway from Iraq. Her family were refugees, and she has lived in Norway ever since. We met because she responded to a poster I had hung up at the local college asking for someone to exchange English lessons for Norwegian lessons. She speaks Arabic, Norwegian, and English beautifully, and is an excellent example of someone who has tried their very hardest to (successfully) integrate into Norwegian culture.  Still, she wears Muslim garb and is decidedly not a blue-eyed, blonde-haired woman.  In the minds of some Norwegians, she is a “bad immigrant”. The wrong kind. The wrong color. The wrong country of origin. Yet, she is much more of a “good immigrant” than I ever plan to be.

Then, last night when I was walking home I passed a dark-skinned man playing the accordion in the cold, trying to earn a little change. A woman who I presumed to be his wife was standing a few feet away in the corner of a building, her hair wrapped in a head scarf, watching him but trying to appear out of the way. I dug into my pocket and left him the small change I had.  He was a talented musician and my American values tell me that it’s good to reward true effort, but I also looked at him and his wife and thought there but for the grace of God go I. 

All of the benefits Rob and I enjoy aren’t benefits but privilege, and we are ripe with it – totally unearned. I never realized how little I knew or understood my own privilege until I moved here. I thought I understood it in Zambia, but I was wrong. There were so many differences between me and the people we lived with in our little Zambian village that it seemed hard to draw the line between privilege and good ol’ fashioned hard work and initiative. I felt lucky, but privileged? Maybe.

Living here, I am the same as many of my fellow immigrants, yet there are things about me (and Rob) that we benefit from, daily, that have nothing to do with our own efforts.  Sure, being here as a PhD student is a reflection of my academic qualifications, but the ease at which we live here doesn’t. And now, I recognize that my ability to earn those academic qualifications was probably significantly easier for me because of those same privileges that make immigrating to Norway easier, too. It’s everywhere, this privilege of ours, and I am finding myself constantly shocked at how rife my life is with it, and how unfair it feels.

Living abroad and receiving America through media and interactions with friends, I fear for who we are becoming as our nation experiences another shift in demographic and generation.  I fear that we are guilty of the same assumptions made about Bano and myself, or the accordion man on the street; that some of us are good and some of us are bad, and there isn’t really a good reason to assume either.  We have made these decisions on what I consider to be nearly baseless assumptions about people based on their color, culture, religion, and country of origin. We, immigrants ourselves perhaps a few generations removed, seem to have forgotten the fear and confusion and loneliness that comes with picking up your roots and crossing the border, and though we fiercely demand that immigrants adapt, assimilate, and acquiesce, we have not made that process easy, efficient, or in some cases possible. More than that, I feel Americans have grown so comfortable in our land of opportunity that we forget why our own ancestors emigrated in the first place.

When Americans forget where they come from, they forget who they are.  I fear we are forgetting ourselves, and in doing so we are forgetting how to empathize with those who are us, but for the grace of God, or privilege.


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When You Try to Come Home Again

They say you can’t go home again, and I’ve never believed this to be true. Coming home from Thailand, from Nepal, from India, and even from bush Alaska, I always felt that Alaska was my true home and Homer was where my heart was.

This time, it’s a little different.

Rob and I returned to Alaska at the end of June, finished with our Peace Corps service and ready to re-enter the world of culinary delights and customer service. We immediately set about stuffing ourselves with every saucy plate of spicy, flavorful goodness we could find. We drove – for the fun of it. We watched TV. We frolicked through the internet and watched cat videos and Netflix and read every interesting article right when it was published. We drank (and drank, and drank) good beers and ciders (which seem to have become more popular while we were away). We rejoiced in pizza with real cheese and a fiesta of toppings. Later, we enjoyed quality bathroom time that didn’t involve squatting over a hole and wasn’t a mystery in digestive intolerance. It was glorious. It felt like home.

Rob and BB reunited!

Rob and BB reunited!

Slowly, though, we began to notice all the little things about America that we had forgotten about. Things that we didn’t miss while we were away, and were suddenly brought into stark relief now that we were home and amongst our fellow Americans.

Americans, we had forgotten, are really wrapped up in the little stuff. We care a lot about really trivial things. We have, in my post-Peace Corps opinion, waayy too many choices in most things. We obsess over diets and GMOs and all these other things that, unsurprisingly, are suddenly weird to care about when you’ve been living with people who are excited to have almost any food. We are really into privacy. We like space and ginormous houses. We make a breathtaking amount of trash. Perhaps most surprising/not surprising: we are, as a population, pretty darn fat. We eat an impressive amount of food. I’ve been amazed by portion sizes since coming home, and how rich everything is. And we do this all day, every day (#generalization, but you get the idea).

It’s been culture shock-y to come home. As much as we were sad to leave our Peace Corps service early, Rob and I have both whispered to each other with guilty expressions how glad we were to leave early and have immediate plans for our future rather than finishing our service and having time to “tread water” afterward. I think the transition “home” has been a lot easier than it might have been simply because we have plans, and a place to be. We are transients in America right now, and without even mentioning the pre-election media coverage (or Trump, because #Ijustcan’teven), I feel like that’s exactly how I want to be. America, and even Alaska in some much smaller way, just doesn’t feel like home right now.

You can’t go home again. – Thomas Wolfe

We knew that coming home from Peace Corps would be tough. Nearly every RPCV we’ve ever talked to say the hardest part of Peace Corps service is once it’s finished. The return journey and reintegration into our native culture is harder in many ways, primarily because we no longer have the excuses of language, culture, or nationality to excuse our ignorance.  In Zambia we lived with our heads in the proverbial sand when it came to any world event that didn’t make the BBC evening news. We rarely had contact with live media. Being home, we are bombarded by the news at a nearly constant rate, and it’s almost always stressful, upsetting, or scary. Living in Zambia had its stressors, but nothing like the constant-information age we live in here in the U.S. It’s phenomenal how much there is to read about, to listen to, or to watch, and how little of it actually contains information worth the energy it takes to absorb it. I feel exhausted by everyone speaking in idioms about climate change, the 2016 election, or DeflateGate. I want to scream at everyone, “Pick a topic and give a sh*t about it!”

Thankfully, Rob has A) helped taper down my caffeine intake and B) understands the process of coming home. Being able to relate to each other’s experience as we reintroduce ourselves to The West (and her wicked witches) has been indescribably helpful. I honestly can’t imagine what it’s like to do it alone (experientially speaking). Our first year of marriage is working out to be one for the record books. It’s pretty strange to not learn how your spouse drives until you repatriate rather than how one normally would – on a first date!

That’s not to say we’re not having a great time. As you read this, we’re settling into our new apartment in Lillehammer, Norway after three weeks in Alaska, a week in Florida, and a little over three weeks CO. We’ve had a wonderful time with family, hiking, dog reunions, and sampling all of our favorite foods (over and over and over again).

Rob hiking across Grace Ridge. Kachemak Bay, Alaska.

Rob hiking across Grace Ridge. Kachemak Bay, Alaska.

We’ve fulfilled our edible cravings and have been welcomed into the loving arms of family and friends. It’s been wonderful to come back to our respective stomping grounds and be “home”. But, we’ve both realized that Peace Corps changes something about how one sees the world, and we are slowly accepting that being the global citizens we want to be means that we can’t really ever return to our pre-Peace Corps lives where running water was unremarkable and social equity a given.

It hurts a little, almost like losing a friend. I guess, in a way, we’ve lost that part of ourselves that guided our views of the world pre-Peace Corps. Now, we owe it to ourselves and to those who were part of our service to see it differently. I think our challenge now is to rectify that difference in viewpoint with the relationships and homes we had before all those changes. We are different, and though it’s awkward at first, it’s also okay. That was the point. We didn’t join the Peace Corps to remain the same.

Fortunately, some things don’t change. Family. Great beer. Favorite pets. Best friends. We now appreciate more than ever that the most important things in life don’t have a physical address. They remain with us no matter where we call home.


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Adding On

I’ve always tried to use my blog as a platform for my personal thoughts, stories, and the occasional interview. Now that I’m back from Zambia and connected to the internet more regularly, I’m finding a wealth of things that I’d like to share (and re-share) with you, my dear readers. So, I’m excited to start adding new content to the blog on a more regular basis. I promise not to overwhelm you with a deluge of media, but hope you’ll enjoy the new additions!

This week, check out this collection of material from around the web talking about climate change.

First up, this awesome video by Prince Ea. He’s an American rapper who creates a wide range of spoken word, music, and visual media talking about important social issues. He made me a dedicated fan with this video speaking to the future generations of Planet Earth.

If watching this isn’t enough to make you want to shut off your lawn sprinklers, then I give up.

Second cool thing this week: Levi’s Jeans is taking the first few steps that ALL manufacturers should be taking to lessen their water consumption through their processing chain.  Check out their web page where you can also find tips on how to lessen your own water usage. Mindful purchases go a long way toward shifting the production practices of our favorite brands.

Speaking of water consumption, California isn’t the only place experiencing major drought. Did you know that 2/3 of the water consumption in the U.S. goes to agriculture? It’s all well and good to take shorter showers, skip the ice in drinks, etc. But if the people of the United States changed our eating habits, we would eliminate most of our water consumption problems. Would you still eat a pound of beef if the 2000-5000 gallons per pound (rough estimate, but most forms of beef use at least that much) required to grow it sat in front of you?  Check out this list of different foods and how much water it takes to grow each product.

Finally, I think the most important thing that has shifted in me since coming home from Peace Corps is my ability to be flexible about my personal consumptive practices.  It’s been something I’ve struggled to identify in myself since coming home, but here’s a quick summary of my thoughts (more to come in a following post).

While living in Zambia, I got back to the way of living (not entirely voluntarily) where choice and preferences take a back seat to reality. I learned, or perhaps re-learned, that what I want doesn’t necessarily matter if it’s not practical or doesn’t meet basic needs. I learned this especially in regard to my preferences for food, consumption, and space. It was tough sometimes, but eventually it faded into the background of life. In essence, I was happy with the very  basics, and stopped thinking twice about it.

When Rob and I returned to America, we were taken aback (way, way back) by what we have taken to calling the “caring about really dumb stuff” principle. People in America (and in most of the “developed” world) are really, really obsessed with stuff that really, really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. We give a whole lotta craps about our personal space, our food preferences, our style, our gadgets, etc. etc. This list is amazingly long and petty.

Of course, it was like this before we left. We just didn’t see it – and how we contributed to it – at the time. Because oh yeah, we were definitely  part of that problem. I love my daily lattes as much as the next gal, let me tell you. BUT, coming home and seeing the seriously impending problems OUR generation is facing and will face in the future regarding climate change, ocean acidification, and the planet we live on, it strikes as not only important but essentially necessary to give up a lot of the little things we choose to care about. To us, it is no longer a question of morality or preference on whether meat consumption is responsible. With thousands of gallons of water required to grow every pound of beef we eat, it’s not really an option to be as vegetarian as possible. It is becoming, quite literally, a life or “death by climate change” non-choice.

So, now when I go to a restaurant with friends, I am different than I was before. Instead of being flexible about my preferences, I insist on eating conscientiously. I will be that Facebook friend that is constantly talking about climate change and sustainable practices and conscious consumption. We will be that couple who lives in a tiny house, because more than 1000sq feet for two people is ridiculous and unnecessary.

And plus, tiny houses are so cool!

And plus, tiny houses are so cool!

I will, because it really isn’t an option to keep screwing around about climate change. For me, and I hope for you.

Thanks for reading and feel free to leave your own thoughts about how you’re making real choices for a real and rapidly impending future on this planet.


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The First Year (Reader Input Wanted!)

This year, I got married.

Well, perhaps I should say We got married, because it’s not like I got married all by myself.

The beginning of our first year.

The beginning of our first year.

Our first year of marriage has had a few start dates. We got ZamMarried in Lusaka. Then, we had a village wedding where we joined our lives (and shared pee bucket) in front of our fellow PCVs and villagers. Then, returned to America/Alaska (which are almost the same thing), we sealed the deal with $60 and a few State of Alaska forms. We didn’t really care about getting “officially” married in America, but apparently Norway (our next destination and job market) doesn’t like it when your only official documentation lists the bride as a 21-year-old “spinster” (as does our Zambian certificate). So, we made it official in one of the few states where literally anyone over the age of 18 can act as an officiant (and the age might be negotiable) and witnesses don’t have to have any form of ID. Hooray for loose cannon matrimonials (great band name, right?)!

Anyway, regardless of when it started, our first year of marriage has been full of all the ups and downs typically promised by big life decisions. We’ve been together in sickness (three exotic diseases each!) and in health, for richer and for poorer (as we stared at the menu prices in Alaska), and through meeting our in-laws, best friends, and neurotic pets. Rob has put up with my fish-obsessed family, and I’m slowly coming to terms with being surrounded by rough collies whenever we’re in his childhood home (#somuchdoghair). More than anything, we feel lucky to have each other and strengthened in our commitment to each other that so many people doubted (seriously, bets were made). We knew what we were doing then, and we’re continuously learning about this decision we’ve made every day since. We are happy, with doses of challenge.

But, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been tough. We’ve had our arguments, our aggressive nudges under the table, our passive-aggressive laundry folding as we glared daggers across the clean socks. Marriage, it turns out, it hard sometimes! Even happy marriage. It feels like we’re rediscovering the whole experience of being married for all mankind, despite the fact that we’re probably the zillionth couple to experience the infamous First Year together. Throw in cultural readjustment and no permanent address and it seems like a phenomena worth its own study.

Which, since you’ve asked, is exactly what I want to do (you did ask, right?). We’ve been quizzing every married couple we’ve come across (my godparents, Rob’s grandparents, my relatively recently married best friends, etc.): what’s your secret? How have you made your marriage work for 55 (or 5) years?

We’ve heard all the things you might expect:
– Listen to your partner.
– Reciprocity is the key.
– Communicate.

And some I didn’t:
– Never fight in front of other people.
– Always take your spouse’s side/support them, even when they’re wrong.
– Sometimes it’s better to defer and just let them be right.
– Try not to complain.

It’s been an education for me, being such a non-complaining natural deferrer of arguments (cue laughter).

But, this topic continues to fascinate me. I haven’t read a single book about “what to expect from my first year of marriage” because, frankly, I think it’s far more interesting to hear it from actual married and/or committed people.

So, married/committed in some way blog readers, what does it take to sustain and nurture a lifetime commitment? What are your secrets? What have you learned? What were the biggest challenges of your first year of marriage?

I want to hear from you! Who knows, maybe I’m even writing these things down and considering a book…!  You can leave your thoughts in the comments, or, if you’d prefer, email them to me through the contact me tab (click the link).

Thank you for sharing, and I wish you a happy day with whomever you’re sharing it with.

Fish on.


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Love in a Time of Peace Corps

Peace Corps is known as the dating service for the adventuresome. Not to be confused, of course, with Corps Social, which is an actual dating service for people of the volunteering nature. Rather, Peace Corps scoops up a bunch of folks, usually in their 20’s, and drops them into a foreign culture where big adventure and challenges await. Naturally, it’s the perfect place for romance.

As volunteers struggle with their environment, themselves, and the always enjoyable bout of Mr. D., a bond is shared between them both during and long after their service has ended. Who else but a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer could possibly understand what it’s like to have everyone laugh at your language skills as you try to buy a rabbit (ikalulu), only to later realize you’ve actually been asking to purchase a pile of flesh-eating ants (ikalandu). Who else but a PCV could boil some drinking water for you while you poop your brains out? Who else would take the time to remind you that snakes are not, in fact, pack animals after you call them in the middle of the night, hysterically ranting about the one you’ve just killed and, in a paranoid frenzy, are now demanding to know where the others might be hiding? Who else understands the loneliness, the cultural isolation, and the doubt you might have about just what in the heck you’re doing here? Only a Peace Corps Volunteer (or perhaps Mother Theresa).

In these conditions, it’s easy to find kinship, connection, and affection amongst fellow volunteers. It’s so common, in fact, that there’s a whole album on the National Peace Corps Association Facebook page dedicated to couples who married someone because of Peace Corps.  While lots of people get together because of Peace Corps, it’s not many who actually get engaged or married during their service.

But I did!

waltz

Waltzing at our cultural day celebration. I swear I’m not trying to lead…

For months now you’ve probably been seeing little snippets of this guy popping up in my posts. Rob is originally from Colorado and joined the Peace Corps just five days after learning about its existence. In contrast, it took me about 10 years to finally apply, which just goes to show that Rob has major cahones and has the quality of fearlessness in spades. Rob and I met about eight months before our staging event and, at first, were not impressed with one another. But, after becoming neighbors during training and Rob proving to me that he is, in fact, the most persistent man on the planet once he knows what he wants, we started seeing each other. He surprised me with what was surely the only box of roses in all of Zambia and by learning to waltz so we could dance together during our cultural day celebration at the end of training.  More importantly, he also surprised me by perhaps giving even more damns about the world than I do; he’s a man with a horizon to catch.

Rob reads a letter from me.

Rob reads a letter from me.

During my community entry, I faced an abusive and hostile host and ended up building a brand new house in a neighboring village. It was a tough time, physically and emotionally, and Rob proved himself out standing in a field since that’s where he and I had to go to find any network to talk (I know, I am the essence of hilarity). We wrote pages and pages of letters back and forth across Zambia, supplemented with expensive phone calls. Checking the mail because an anticipated event book-ended by hours of rough travel. But, when the envelopes arrived with his uneven scrawl across them, it was worth every pothole. It was a really special experience to get to know each other through our writing and our inner thoughts instead of typical dates or the instantaneous nature of present day communication. I felt not only a connection to him, but a connection to my family and our long history of writing letters (my dad is quite the Casanova in print, as his father was before him).

Long story short, Rob and I came to realize that life without each other would be generally unpleasant, and after our Peace Corps experience it would be hard to ever share that same sort of intimacy and trust with someone who didn’t truly get our experience.  I came to realize that there’s something to be said for that whole “the one for you” thing. Turns out, when you know, you know.

In September of 2014, a full year after we had first introduced ourselves over Skype, Rob came to visit me after our in-service training conference. As we cooked and ate dinner by candle light, he told me how he wanted to be together in a forever sort of way. I was, of course, delighted to hear this news (as I had been having similar feelings), but I explained that not only did I need to wait a while to sort out my feelings with a clear head, but I also wanted to be the one to do the asking when that time came. He agreed and patiently waited another four months until I did the one thing I’ve never been so sure of and asked Rob to be my greatest adventure. And…

He said yes!

[Editor’s note: In case of an overdose of cuteness, this post may be printed out, folded up, and used as a barf bag.]

Since that happy evening, Rob and I petitioned Peace Corps to be allowed to live together for the remainder of our service in my site. Rob, in another testament to his incredible versatility and spirit, volunteered to leave his own site, language, and familiar surroundings to start all over again in my village with me. Peace Corps, to our great surprise, allowed us to make this move but required that we get married under Zambian law and strongly encouraged us to have a village wedding (traditional village ceremony). We agreed, and are now living happily ever after (or at least ’til April 2016) in our hut in Mbala.

I think a special shout-out to our parents is also in order. They not only supported our union and continued to send care packages to a daughter/son-in-law they’d never met but on Skype, but they also supported us in the big leap of living in a 5×7 meter hut together for the rest of our service. It’s a big leap of faith for us, for them, and for our village, but there are some things that you just don’t need to second guess. For us, we are one of those things. And seriously, what did they expect from kids like us?

So, surprise! I’m ZamMarried and am looking forward to bringing Rob home (and vice-versa) to introduce him to the big wild world and people of Alaska. Next week I’ll give you the details of our two ZamWeddings and talk more about relationships in Peace Corps.

Dance partners for life.

Dance partners for life.